Song of Norway, Carnegie Hall, New York – review

Song of Norway was a hit on both US coasts back in 1944. Robert Wright and George Forrest seized upon the life of Edvard Grieg for a faux-biographical operetta that dabbled in pretty-pretty song, dance, chitchat and romance. The plot focused the composer’s struggle to develop a personal language, something reflecting dreams, ideals, fjords and picturesque vistas. Amorous conflict was introduced via an Italian mock-diva intent on tearing Grieg away from his sweetheart. Ah . . . 

The score recycled actual Grieg tunes. The Second Norwegian Dance, for instance, became a ditty, Freddy and his Fiddle. The E-major Scherzo became a sentimental ballad, Midsummer’s Eve. The orchestra served soupy distortions, nonstop. George Balanchine originally provided balletic and folkish divertissements to adorn the libretto’s creaky platitudes.

It could, probably should, be argued that Song of Norway is a quaint period piece best left to history books and fuzzy memories. But James Bagwell and his Collegiate Chorale, 170 voices strong, deny that argument. On Tuesday they assembled an overblown semi-staged performance that featured the massive American Symphony Orchestra appreciatively conducted by Ted Sperling, a stellar cast, six not-so-stellar dancers and a presumably witty but virtually inaudible narrator, Jim Dale.

The exhumation (revival is too nice a word) resembled a sprawling banality bonanza. The sickly, also slickly, bastardised music sounded sleazy. The dialogue conveyed naive nattering. The libretto stressed cornball rhymes of the I’ll-treasure-every-measure persuasion. The choreographic intrusions, credited to Tom Gold, conjured clumsy hippety-hop sur les pointes clichés. A primitive amplification system reduced almost everything to microphone muddle. The vast open spaces of Carnegie Hall seemed far too vast, far too open. And the inherent intellectual poses suggested pretentious claptrap.

The leading roles were entrusted to Santino Fontana (dapper as Grieg), Jason Danieley (charming as his buddy), Alexandra Silber (a bit squeaky as his girlfriend), Anita Gillette (a deft replacement for Marni Nixon as his mother) and Judy Kaye (pleasantly over the top as the pushy prima donna). They all did all they could. It wasn’t enough.

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